Modified rice plans on hold for Missouri

Friday, April 29, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Ventria Bioscience is giving up plans to grow genetically modified rice in Missouri this year, saying the company can't get a permit from federal regulators in time for the growing season.

Scott Deeter, president of the Sacramento, Calif.-based company, said Thursday that he still remains committed to growing the rice in Missouri next year if the U.S. Agriculture Department issues a permit.

Ventria has been trying to gain approval to grow about 200 acres of genetically engineered rice to produce human proteins that could be used in drugs. Plans to grow the rice in southeast Missouri were scuttled this month after Anheuser-Busch Cos. threatened to boycott the state's rice crop over concerns the modified rice could contaminate edible rice grown nearby.

Ventria agreed April 15 to find a site at least 120 miles from commercial growing areas and Anheuser-Busch dropped its boycott threat.

However, Ventria hasn't yet filed its revised request for a permit and getting one from the Agriculture Department takes at least 30 days. Ventria must plant rice by May 20 to have enough time for the 155-day growing cycle.

"My expectation is that the USDA's regulatory process doesn't have enough flexibility to accommodate our May 20 date," Deeter said.

He said the company was still considering several locations in the northwest and northeast parts of the state. Ventria plans to grow regular rice in Missouri this year to develop plant varieties for future use, he said.

"We're very excited about our future in Missouri," Deeter said.

Ventria wants to grow rice enhanced with synthetic human genes to produce the proteins lactoferrin and lysozyme, which it would harvest and refine for use in medicines to fight diarrhea and dehydration.

In November, Northwest Missouri State University and Ventria agreed to make the company the anchor of a proposed Center of Excellence for plant-made pharmaceuticals on the university's campus in Maryville. Ventria plans to move its headquarters to Missouri.

Last week, Gov. Matt Blunt called Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to find out if the agency could expedite Ventria's permit request.

But Karen Eggert, a spokeswoman for the department that oversees permits, said the agency has no system for placing permit requests on a fast track.

"Each permit has to go through a process and we wouldn't make exceptions to move someone through more quickly or skip steps or anything like that," Eggert said Thursday.

Several environmental groups sent a letter to Johanns on Thursday urging him not to be pressured into rushing any new permit process.

"Fast tracking a decision is unacceptable in light of the risks and would certainly undermine USDA's credibility, both here and abroad," said Joe Mendelson, legal director of the watchdog group Center for Food Safety.

Environmental groups, food companies and farmers oppose Ventria's efforts to grow modified rice in the state, arguing that the rice could cross-pollinate with other food crops, introducing the foreign genes into the regular food chain.

Bill Freese, a spokesman for the environmental group Friends of the Earth, said he considered Ventria's decision a victory for opponents of genetically engineered rice.

"There's all this talk about a compromise, but look what's happened," Freese said. "The bottom line is: It's not happening in Missouri."

Meanwhile, Ventria filed new permit applications Thursday with the USDA to grow genetically engineered rice on 70 acres in eastern North Carolina. The company already has a permit to grow its rice on five acres in that state.

Deeter also said his company plans to grow genetically modified rice in South America and Puerto Rico this year to make up for its inability to grow in Missouri.

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